When They See Us is an American miniseries of Netflix released in 2019.
In just 4 episodes, it narrates the story of the Central Park Five from 1990: the quintet of teenagers that were wrongly incarcerated, wrongly charged with the crime of assaulting and raping a white jogger. Just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, vulnerable and belonged to a minority (hispanic or black).
They all served their sentences (from 7 to 13 years) and were not exonerated until 2002, after paying for a crime they did not commit. You cannot make this up. This is a reminder of how reality exceeds fiction.
What could have possibly made a jury and a legal system believe that these five teenagers were responsible for a crime even when the evidence did not prove it?
The miniseries made me reflect about many different things. One of them the very serious topic of racism, obviously; but also the different factors that can influence our decision making.
We can see in the miniseries how different characters make decisions (more or less legitimate) that lead to the sentencing of these teenagers. Since the moment we wake up we are making decisions. Not all our decisions have such gravitas, they can be simpler ones that shape how our days unfold. There are many factors that influence us in our daily lives. Below are just a few of them.
- Social pressure is the first one I thought about. The way we think, like it or not, is shaped by our culture and those things that surround us. There are also plenty of studies demonstrating that if there is pressure from others to jump on their bandwagon and agree with their thinking (like colleagues, or the media…), we’ll do so without questioning the decision if we are unclear on our values. We are also obviously influenced by those we find similarities with, those we have a good rapport with or find attractive.
- “Time is money“. In modern society we are pressured to yield results fast. This demand to act immediately and give quick answers also influences our decision making and how we make choices. Often, we don’t give ourselves enough time to assess all options and we can jump to conclusions too promptly. The trouble is that the first and easiest option is rarely the best one.
- Emotions play a crucial role in our decision making. Emotions are attached to our knowledge and experiences. If we are brought up seeing specific behaviours towards a specific group of people, our future decisions will be biased, consciously or not.
- Finally, our values are also at the heart of our decisions. When we grow up, our family and those around us define what is important in our lives, shape the values that guide our actions in the future. Whether we are aware of them or not doesn’t matter because we look for things to proof them true. If we want to believe that a specific person did something, because of our values we will believe so no matter the consequences.
These five men were victims of a clearly flawed system. Those deciding on their future were strongly influenced by social pressures, the necessity to close the case quickly, the emotional roller coaster that involves such a sensitive case, and the fact that nobody making decisions had a similar background to them (and probably also value system).
After reflecting on these factors, my question is how (and not if) we can stop us from making biased decisions.
What is in your power to make sure you have the right influences around you?